A few months ago, I saw tweets from Wright Thompson talking about Iowa City and Dan Gable. So I had an idea that something might be in the works. But months went by and nothing further appeared, so I stopped thinking about it too much. And then, like a bolt out of the blue, the front page of ESPN today:
Wright Thompson, one of the finest sportswriters in America today, writing about Dan Gable, one of the most iconic figures in Iowa sports history? Yeah, that might be worth reading. Which is, of course, a underselling it hugely; it's a tremendously engaging, beautifully-written profile of a man whose life has been so remarkable (in ways both good and bad) that it would be worth reading about even if he wasn't on the Hawkeye Mount Rushmore of coaching figures. And, in truth, his Hawkeye-ness is almost incidental to the story: the accounts of an animated, deeply passionate Gable watching Matt McDonough and Derek St. John at the NCAA Wrestling Tournament last spring are captivating and his legendary, 21-year tenure as Iowa's wrestling coach informs several details or anecdotes in Thompson's piece, but they aren't the focus of it by any means. The focus is on Dan Gable, the man, and the ways in which he is tied so strongly to wrestling and, in particular, wrestling's fight to remain in the Olympics.
And that's fine. The truth is that Iowa has never been able to fully claim Dan Gable. He's an Iowa State wrestler. He's an Iowa coach. He's a U.S. Olympic wrestling legend. Dan Gable transcends singular labels. He belongs to more than Iowa and more than Iowa State -- hell, he belongs to more than America. As one of the (many) wonderful details of Thompson's piece makes clear, Dan Gable belongs to the sport of wrestling, colleges and nationalities be damned:
He's focused on overturning the IOC decision. When the news broke, Gable invited a reporter to his home outside Iowa City and to the NCAA wrestling tournament, which remains a holy week in his family. He's still the most famous person in the world of wrestling. A Des Moines newspaper reporter once wore an Iowa hat to a Russian village during the Cold War, in the mountains near the Siberian border, where an American had never been. A young man stepped out of the crowd, pointed toward the hat and said one of the few English words he knew: "Gable."
It's that truth, that Dan Gable is wrestling, both its face and its soul, that reverberates throughout the piece. In hindsight, that also explains the timing of this piece's publication (which will also appear in the next issue of ESPN: The Magazine, as I understand it) right now: the battle to get wrestling back into the Olympics is heading into the home stretch now (in wrestling parlance, the clock has ticked down to the final minute of the third period), with the IOC voting next month to decide whether to include wrestling, squash, or baseball/softball in the program for the next Olympics. In other words, it's a great time to put the spotlight on that issue by profiling wrestling's greatest ambassador.
I'm not going to bother highlighting any other notable passages from the piece. For one, there are so many great passages that it's basically impossible to pick out just one or two that stand above the rest. For another, there's no need to -- just read the profile. It's well worth the 15 minutes it might take you. It's funny, it's sad, it's moving, it's disturbing, it's enlightening -- it is, simply put, great writing about a person very much worth reading about.
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